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What is search intent?

6 minute read

Graham Charlton

When a user enters a search term into Google or another search engine, we often think about it in terms of keywords and terms, and how we can optimise our pages and sites for those keywords.

Search intent is another way to look at how users are searching, and to use it to optimise your sites more effectively.

Essentially, search intent is the why behind a user’s search query. Why did they choose this search term? What information are they looking for? Are they looking to purchase something?

By better understanding why customers search in a certain way, and the language we use, we can provide the content and pages that answer these queries more effectively.

In this article, I’ll look more closely into search intent, how Google may use this to show certain types of results and how we can use search intent to make content more relevant and effective.

What is search intent and why does it matter?

If we can understand the intent behind particular searches more effectively, we can produce the content that helps users more effectively at that specific stage of their journey.

For example, in a retail context, a general search for ‘TVs’ may indicate that the customer is looking for a TV but hasn’t decided on a particular model yet.

As they move closer to a purchase they may search for terms like ‘best 42 inch TV’ or ‘best TVs under £400’ to narrow their search, before searching for content like reviews.

Once they are searching for specific brands of TV, and even model numbers, this then suggests a clearer intent to purchase.

At each stage of this journey, searchers are looking for different types of content. In the earlier stages, they may want content from publishers showing the pros and cons of different TV models and types, then sites that show a range of reviews, and later on they will be looking for places they can buy specific TV models.

From a retail perspective, having a presence during this journey can help immensely. For example, showing review and product comparison content may help to catch users in the earlier stages of their journey, and helps to keep your site in mind when they do decide to make a purchase.

Different types of search intent

There are broadly four different types of search intent which people tend to look at.

1. Informational

These searches are looking for specific pieces of information, perhaps historical facts, which films a certain actor has been in, or perhaps what tomorrow’s weather will be like. These may be formulated as questions – ‘how to’, ‘what is’ etc. They may also be things like ‘weather London’, ‘cricket score’ etc.

2. Navigational 

These searches are the user looking for a specific website and using Google as a shortcut as it’s quicker than typing the URL into the browser. So, they may type ‘Google’, ‘BBC’ or ‘Facebook’.

3. Transactional

These are searches where users are in buying mode. They may search for specific products and brands and are simply looking for somewhere to buy them from. They may use words like ‘buy’, ‘deal’, ‘voucher code’ etc.

4. Commercial 

Commercial searches are those where the user has some intent to buy in the near future and are using the web to do some research. In this case they may be looking for content that helps them make a decision, comparisons and product reviews for example.

How Google looks at search intent

Google and other search engines are looking for greater relevance, and to answer user queries as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Google also has the data from people’s searches to greater understand user intent. For example, it can see the sites that users visit after particular search queries, and those they choose to stay on for longer.

This can tell Google whether they found the information they wanted – time spent on the site and other key metrics can tell Google which websites, and which kinds of content, satisfies user search intent.

So, when Google sees a particular type of search query, it often already has an idea of the content needed to help the user, and this feeds into its algorithm.

One way we can see this is the way Google chooses to display results for certain queries. Increasingly, Google is also using different types of results and SERP features to answer searches more effectively.

For example, informational searches will often be answered quickly with featured snippets like the one below. They work very well for questions with a quick and clear answer like someone’s age, who was president in a certain year, and so on.

Google search screenshot

Some searches, such as a search for ‘living room design ideas’ will produce more image-heavy results, while clear transactional searches, including the word ‘buy’ for instance, will produce Google Shopping results, as well as plenty of ads.

Google search screenshot

How to optimise for search intent

To optimise for search intent, we need to understand the why behind the search, and use this information to produce the content that best satisfies these searches.

Look at your target terms and understand user intent

It’s important to look at the terms you target and understand what kind of content will work best in each case.

If you have some understanding of the intent behind these searches, this can help you to decide. For example, you can classify searches into the four groups outlined above to work out what content you’ll need.

So, for informational queries we may choose to produce more educational content, a blog post for example. For commercial queries, content which helps users to choose between products – this could also be a blog post, or perhaps content like comparison tables, and of course, user reviews.

This is a helpful exercise as it can help you to understand what customers are looking for at each stage of purchase journeys and can help you to feature in as many stages of this journey as possible.

Look for search types that may lead to transactions

Informational searches may be simply the first stage in a series of searches that will eventually lead to more transactional searches – moving from searches on the best washing machine features to look for, through reviews, to the specific brand and model of washer.

In this case, an electrical retailer may want to be present at various stages in different ways. Here’s an example from Curry’s. It ranks highly with a washing machine buyer’s guide for an informational query that suggests the beginning of a possible purchase.

Google search screenshot

This is detailed content that answers a lot of possible customer questions about the features they need, pros and cons of different machine types, and so on.

In a best case scenario for Curry’s, the user could find the information they need and decide on a purchase there and then, and Curry’s has controlled the whole journey. Or they may find some information and merely keep this retailer in mind for when they decide to purchase.

In this case, a presence in the results for informational searches can actively help the retailer to increase sales, and also helps them improve their overall rankings in areas that are relevant to the products they sell.

Look at the search results Google shows for your target terms

Google is likely to have a greater understanding of user intent than you do, and the kind of results it shows can give you an insight into what it has learned and incorporated into its algorithm.

It can also tell you the type of content you’ll need to produce, and who your key competitors are (and the kinds of content that is working for them). So, if Google is showing detailed buyers guides, this is the kind of content you’ll need to produce to have a chance of ranking.

Google’s results can also tell you what type of content formats can work well. If it shows text results, then this may be enough. If however, Google is showing images and video, then perhaps you’ll need to work on more visual content to help improve search visibility.

Google search screenshot

In summary

Search intent can be a very useful way to think about SEO, as it helps you to consider how relevant and helpful you can be to the potential customer at every stage of their purchase journey, from initial research to the final purchase decision.

Key to success here is the ability to adapt content to different types of user intent, and not just to simply sell and push products at each stage, but to produce relevant content that helps the visitor.

If they are looking for useful information and just see a sales page, they may look elsewhere, but the right content at the right time can be highly effective.

Learn from Google, and the content (and content formats) it shows for each type of search and think about how they relate to search intent. Google has some idea of user intent for each search, so it pays to look at the results for your target keywords.

Graham Charlton is Editor in Chief at behavioural marketing company SaleCycle. He has previously worked for Econsultancy and Search Engine Watch, and has written several best practice guides on e-commerce and digital marketing. Follow him on Twitter

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